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How can a business use global reporting initiative (GRI)

Discover sustainable success, Global Reporting Initiative's standards empower businesses to measure and maximize their positive impact.
Written by
Hetal Sheth
Published on
August 21, 2018

Global Reporting Initiative's impact reporting standards are an essential tool for businesses interested in creating value beyond the financial bottom line.

The Global Reporting Initiative has been around for decades. It is widely used, but perhaps more is needed.

Often, when we talk about social enterprise and the “impact sector,” we conveniently (or naively) overlook the kind of organization that arguably has the greatest scale potential for impact—a large corporation.

Generally, corporations are perceived to be bottom-line focused. And in general, this is true. But it’s also a reality that is less black and white. So in those growing grey areas, there is an emergence of new concepts and strategies embracing, for example, a triple-bottom-line and the creation of social value.

Accountability frameworks are needed to hold players, new and old, accountable for their claims of impact. Enter the Global Reporting Initiative.

Global Reporting Initiative Definition

The Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) is an independent organization in the Netherlands that facilitates standardized reporting for businesses across several sustainability metrics.

Their standards have become some of the most used across the world. For example, a KPMG survey found that 6 out of 10 companies who conduct corporate responsibility reporting use the GRI guidelines as their standard of choice.

global reporting initiative principles
Fig: Principles of GRI

What’s more, of the largest 250 companies in the world, 93% report on sustainability and more than 80% of those companies use the GRI standards to report on their impacts.

Why Use the Global Reporting Initiative Standards?

The standards are a public good for the public interest. Freely available, they help organizations frame impact reporting in a standardized “language” that is understood and accepted as a form of reporting across sectors and the world.

Let’s think about the benefits from different stakeholders’ perspectives. First, on an internal level, employees attempting to implement a GRI reporting program have a comprehensive framework built for them, with a vast amount of resources online to ensure successful execution.

On a broader internal level, using GRI standards for impact reporting helps give all employees a clearer sense of an organization’s purpose and commitment to beyond-bottom-line impacts. In a world where more and more employees seek “purpose-driven” businesses to work for, more companies need to be doing this. Of course, authentically.

Looking at the investor side of things, GRI reporting helps give such stakeholders more confidence in the long-term viability of an enterprise (ideally) if they can see value creation across several capitals, from financial to intellectual, human, and social, and more.

There are numerous other reasons to use a standardized reporting framework like the GRI. But put, it helps create value. For you, your company, and everything it touches.

Using the GRI for Impact Reporting

This online public database includes nearly 50,000 reports that include GRI standards as a base for how some impacts are reported.

The database includes reports by companies such as Unilever, one of the world’s largest corporations, and one making massive strides to create value beyond the financial across its many verticals.

You can find their most recent report here. Taking a brief look into it, we can see how the GRI standards were used to report impacts and processes in the reporting year.

The first section covers basic information about the company and its internal structure, such as:

  • G4-11: Percentage of total employees covered by collective bargaining agreements (page 4)
  • G4-18: Process for defining report content” (page 5)
  • G4-56: Describe the organization’s values, principles, standards, and norms of behavior, such as codes of conduct and codes of ethics (page 8)

The second section dives into those metrics used to account for impacts on material aspects defined by the company (see photo below).

gri unilever impact report - how to use gri
Fig: Unilever GRI G4 Index

Some examples include:

  • G4-EN32: Percentage of new suppliers that were screened using environmental criteria (page 11)
  • G4-EN6: Reduction of energy consumption & G4-EN7: Reduction in energy requirements of products and services (page 14)
  • G4-EN2: Percentage of materials used that are recycled input materials (page 15)

Next to each G4 guideline is a link to the relevant information.

Stakeholders of varying levels of influence all have access to this report and, therefore, access to the efforts (and progress) Unilever is making toward its social and environmental impact goals.

Impact Reporting on the SDGs Using GRI Standards

The GRI Standards and Disclosures can also help businesses conduct successful business reporting in alignment with the Sustainable Development Goals. 

The GRI has done a considerable amount of work to encourage private sector participation on the road to achieving the SDGs. For example, companies can use a resource co-developed by GRI called the SDG Compass to get started and continue reporting in alignment with the SDGs.

This resource includes a comprehensive inventory of business tools -- different frameworks, assessment strategies, etc. -- that can help determine a company's impact on any of the SDGs areas.

For a more direct comparison between the SDGs and the GRI standards, the SDG Compass group (made up of the UN Global Compact and the World Business Council for Sustainable Development) also developed a report that goes through all the SDGs (goal 5, which shows below), mapping them to the GRI standards and disclosure which are relevant to each.

sdg indicators and targets, companies using gri standards
SDG Indicators

Resources such as these provide initiatives like the UN Global Compact with the tools they need to facilitate their work in the private sector. The UN Global Compact, for example, has as its mission:

  1. Do business responsibly by aligning their strategies and operations with Ten Principles on human rights, labor, environment, and anti-corruption; and
  2. Take strategic actions to advance broader societal goals, such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals, emphasizing collaboration and innovation.

Working with the GRI to provide businesses with the tools they need to be a force for good, the UN Global Compact has engaged nearly 10,000 companies of varying sizes in their corporate sustainability efforts.

Lastly, the corporate action group, SDG Recording, offers a platform for businesses to improve their SDG reporting literacy through participation in various learning programs, discussions, and live events around the world.

GRI Standards for a New Kind of Business

The business landscape is changing. From investors to customers to employees -- all across the value chain -- the purpose is motivating business decisions more than ever. This means businesses must respond. They must pursue value creation that goes beyond simple dollar signs.

As businesses make such changes, exploring the impacts of their operations, inside and out, the evidence of that purpose needs to be communicated authentically, consistently, and accessibly. The GRI standards enable businesses to do that.

They are authentic because they are widely accepted as a sustainability-oriented reporting measure. They encourage consistency through a well-established framework, facilitating comparability from year to year and across companies.

Lastly, as we have mentioned, the accessibility of impact reporting with the GRI is demonstrated with every report uploaded to the global database. Transparency grows with each one.

So, whichever sector you may find yourself in, or whatever the size of your company, the Global Reporting Initiative can help jumpstart an impact reporting (and impact management) process. If you’ve already begun, it may be what you need to refine that process even more. 

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